I Got Sunshine: DIY Organic Limoncello

Ah, limoncello! That little glass of sunshine on a cloudy day (or a sunny day, or… any day). Limoncello is lemony-sweet boozy goodness that you can enjoy as an apertif, a digestif, or anywhere in between. If you’ve got some patience, lemons, clear alcohol of at least 80 proof (vodka, for example), and simple syrup, you can make your own limoncello to enjoy whenever.

Sunshine in a glass
Sunshine in a glass

When I wrote about Lemonpalooza earlier this year, one of the projects on my list was to make a tasty organic limoncello. Maybe not the “it tastes just like the one on had in Italy that one time.” But a flavorful, balanced — not too sweet and not too boozy — indulgence, using good ingredients. Deciding on the right combo of lemons, alcohol and simple syrup meant getting into research-geek mode (definitely part of the fun!). I reviewed a variety of recipes from across the interwebs and dug for deets about alcohol content and aging times for liqueurs.

Thinking about making your own limoncello? Here are some tips to help you along.

Go Organic and Pesticide-Free
While not certified organic, the lemons I get from my backyard and from my neighbors are pesticide-free. In fact, other than the occasional watering — mostly from the little rainfall we’ve had this year — these lemons are just doing their own thing without the help of other chemicals. If you’re trying to follow a healthy, sustainable diet, why not consider doing same with homemade liqueurs?

Limoncello made in Italy typically uses Femminello ‘St. Teresa’ lemons. Larger than our local ‘Eureka’, the Femminello’s zest has more lemon oil, which gives Italian limoncello that oh-so-lemony flavor. (Want to know more about Femminellos? Check out scordo.com.) While some of the specialty citrus growers are starting to cultivate Femminello lemons here in California, the fruit aren’t widely available in the market yet. Given the local abundance of Meyers at this time of year (and their unique sweet-tart flavor), they’re a good choice for a 650-style liqueur. Traditional? No. Delicious? Yes.

Grain Alcohol vs. Vodka
While in research-geek mode, I tracked down at least a dozen recipes from reputable sources. (Incidentally, all of them the best limoncello recipe evah! ) For every best ev-ah! recipe out there, there’s another best ev-ah! that contradicted the previous — particularly when it came to the type of alcohol to use: high-proof grain alcohol vs. 80-proof vodka. Given that I want to know who’s making my consumables, the source of their ingredients, and the distiller’s take on sustainability, I opted for an 80-proof organic vodka that has a clean, neutral finish. Choosing a lower-proof base alcohol also meant that I didn’t have to add as much simple syrup to dilute the alcohol percentage of my finished limoncello.

Simple Syrup and Alcohol Content
The alcohol content of commercially made limoncellos falls in the 26-32% range (that’s 52-64 proof). That percentage is determined by how much simple syrup you add to the lemon-infused alcohol. Sound complicated? It’s not. The more simple syrup you add, the more you dilute the alcohol, thus lowering the percentage. More simple syrup = less boozy and sweeter. Less simple syrup = more boozy and less sweet. Got it?

Taste will rule how much simple syrup you add to your limoncello, but if you want to geek out and make sure you get your limoncello in that 26-32% range for alcohol content, then website LimoncelloQuest can help. The site provides a calculator that quickly figures out for you how much simple syrup to add to your lemon-infused alcohol. Of course, you can skip the calculator and rely completely on your own palate, ‘cos taste-testing is part of the fun of creating your own liqueur.

If there’s any downside to making limoncello, it’s the waiting. The infusion process takes about four weeks, then there’s a few more days of waiting after you dilute the infusion with simple syrup. That’s right. More waiting. What I’ve learned is that the last part — that additional week of aging — is key. You have to let the simple syrup and lemon-infused alcohol do their thing in the dark for a few days — better yet, a week. During this time the alcohol will mellow a bit, reducing any harshness.

Back in February, I promised that if all went well, I’d post the recipe. <Drumroll> Well, two months later, and half three-quarters of the bottle gone, here it is: DIY Organic Limoncello.

Recipe: DIY Organic Limoncello
Yield: About 1 liter, depending on the amount of dilution and taste testing.
The base alcohol you use matters as much as the lemons, so choose a neutral, smooth vodka that fits your budget and dietary requirements or lifestyle (gluten-free, kosher, grain allergy, etc.). Note that I’ve specified organic cane sugar for this recipe, which produces a richer-flavored and darker-colored simple syrup than you’ll get using refined white sugar.

Use the best quality lemons and vodka for your taste and budget
Use the best quality lemons and vodka for your taste and budget

For the Infusion
What You Need:

1 bottle (750 ml) Tru Organic Vodka
10 organic / pesticide-free Meyer lemons
1-Liter glass jar, clean and dry
1 piece of plastic wrap, to cover the mouth of the jar

How to:

  1. Rinse the lemons to remove any dust or dirt.
    If necessary, use a small brush to scrub away any dirt or insects that don’t come off easily.

    Tip: keep a small scrub brush handy for cleaning citrus skins
    Tip: keep a small scrub brush handy for cleaning citrus skins
  2. Using a fine zester (Microplane or box grater), zest the lemons.
    Reserve naked lemons for other uses.
  3. Combine zest and vodka in the jar.
    Use any jar that has a snuggly fitting lid and a wide-ish opening, such as a mason jar. When the time comes, you’ll have to strain the zest out of the container, and you don’t want to struggle with some narrow opening.
  4. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the mouth of the jar. Close the lid tightly and place in a cool, dark spot to infuse for four weeks.
    Put a piece of plastic wrap over the mouth of the jar before sealing
    Put a piece of plastic wrap over the mouth of the jar before sealing

    Suggestion: Label the jar with today’s date. A piece of masking tape and a Sharpie should do the trick.

  5. Create an alert on your calendar for four weeks from now so that you know when to dilute the infusion.

Simple Syrup
Yield: About 1½ cups


8 ounces fair-trade, organic sugar
8 ounces filtered water

How to:

  1. Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover saucepan, and allow syrup to cool to room temperature before using.
  2. If not using immediately, store in a closed container in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 weeks.
    Note: Simple syrup made with natural, organic sugar has slight brownish hue to it, which will darken the limoncello. It won’t be quite as day-glo yellow as limoncello made with refined sugar, but I think the flavor is better.

Diluting and Aging
What You’ll Need:

Clean 1-liter jar
Several layers of cheesecloth
1½ cups simple syrup (recipe above)

How to:

  1. Line the funnel with several layers of cheesecloth and place it in the mouth of the clean jar.

    Line the funnel with several layers of cheesecloth before straining
    Line the funnel with several layers of cheesecloth before straining
  2. Pour the infused alcohol and zest into the funnel, straining the zest from the liquid.
  3. Squeeze all liquid from the cheesecloth into the jar.

    Make sure to get all of that lemon-infused goodness out of the zest
    Make sure to get all of that lemon-infused goodness out of the zest
  4. Pour 1 cup of the simple syrup into the jar and stir. Taste the mixture.
    It might taste boozy at this point; the alcohol content will be about 30%, or 60 proof. If you think this might be to your taste, close the jar, and put it in a cool, dark place to age for a week. If, after a week, your limoncello is still too boozy or harsh, you can add more simple syrup at that time. Just give it a few more days to age.
    If you think you’d prefer a sweeter limoncello, add more simple syrup, two tablespoons at time. Stir, then taste. FYI, I added the full 12 ounces of simple syrup all at once for 27% alcohol content (54 proof) and ended up with the perfect balance of alcohol and sweetness for my palate. I probably could have gone with just a tablespoon or two less, but it’s so damn good!
  5. Age your final mixture for a week, then transfer to the final storage bottle or container. Store in refrigerator or freezer. Serve chilled.picnic-bottle
    You might notice a “scum” forming at the top of the container. This is a coagulation of the natural lemon oils in the mixture (it’s flav-ah!). Simply stir or shake the container to redistribute the oils.

Have you made limoncello? What’s your best ev-ah recipe?

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